When British art-rock band Radiohead first released their album OK Computer in 1997, record label EMI estimated that the lack of commercial and easily enjoyable songs would cause the record to sell poorly. The band’s American distributor, Capitol Records, considered the album “commercial suicide.” Touching on themes including alienation, consumerism, and dependency on technology, OK Computer has gone to sell almost 8 million copies worldwide and, more importantly, has become of the most influential albums of the last forty years. The album is so beloved that the band’s fourth effort, Kid A, released in 2000, was considered by many a betrayal of their previous work. Trading rock guitars for electronic effects and recognizable song structures for looped samples and lyrics assembled by cutting up random words and phrases, the band once again sold millions and created a legacy that even the most gate-keeping, rock-centric critics recognize today. More fascinating still is the way that latter album would, in retrospect, augment and enhance the themes of former. In OK Computer, Radiohead struggles against being overwhelmed with technology. In Kid A, they embrace it and, in the process, create something entirely new.
Two decades and several generations of technology later, filmmaker Gareth Edwards combines an early sequence of American anti-AI forces flying into New Asian airspace with the blurry, chopped-up vocals of Kid A‘s opening track into a beautiful encapsulation of the director’s fourth feature-length film, The Creator: Everything in Its Right Place.
Like most other modern art, The Creator is not an entirely unique or original work. Nor does it appear to aspire to say anything novel within in the human versus machine genre, a genre so old that it predates the very computers, robots, artificial intelligence, and the other technology that its protagonists battle against, or, at times, for. While filmgoers would immediately identify this type of narrative with The Terminator or The Matrix (and fewer with Ghost in the Shell, the film that The Matrix stole most of its ideas from), the entire science fiction genre started with what is essential a human vs. human creation narrative in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (the book, the not movie Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the movie Prometheus). Hell, the first extended narrative I ever thought of, and have been working distinguish from all others ever since, was one with humans fighting intelligent robots. Where The Creator stands out from the thousands of generic fight-the-machines narratives is in using the tools at its disposal – particularly its stunning visual effects but also its performers, script, locations, limited budget, and even its music – in the most impactful way possible. In other words, everything is in its right place. Well, almost everything.
At its most effective, The Creator is a blueprint for how science fiction films can and should look in the future. Made on a paltry 80 million dollars (what I wouldn’t give to have 80 million dollars, amirite?) the film could easily pass for a two hundred-plus million tent pole with effects that put several bigger releases, such as The Flash or Ant-Man: Quantumania, to absolute shame. Knowing the limitations, Edwards reportedly used a skeleton crew of as few as four people in over eighty different locations, often capturing everyday people going about their normal business in the background, to shoot and edit the entire film before adding the numerous special effects. While not entirely without Volume-style CGI backgrounds, the resulting world in The Creator feels much more tangible and lived it. Objects have weight and heft to them, and the characters interact with the environment and, more importantly, with each other. When Joshua Taylor scoops up Alphie, we see the weight in his cybernetic arm and shoulder. We feel the ridges as a pencil rolls along the gaping hole where an ear should be. Better still, using physical locations allows Edwards to preserve the amazing sense of scale he so wonderful/terrifyingly used in Rogue One, with The Creator‘s NOMAD missile system as an omnipresent horror in the sky, its blue light and ambient hum a warning of potential annihilation. These realistic touches lend a strength and believability to the world even when the emotions fail or the narrative strains. If for absolutely nothing else, The Creator is a success in using its computer effects exactly as they should be: augmenting rather than replacing reality.
Sadly, for all the clarity in its visual effects, and even in its delivery of emotion, the same can’t be said of The Creator‘s narrative themes. Obviously the film works as sheer entertainment. Gun fights, explosions, speeding aircraft, car crashes, the elements of an action movie are all on screen and, for the most part, they are masterfully executed. However, given the film’s structure, the intensity of the emotions, and the grandeur of the narrative itself, it’s clear that Edwards isn’t content with making a film that is merely entertaining. He wants to say something. Yet, even now, several hours after leaving the theater, I’m still not sure what that something is.
Being humans… I assume… we naturally identify with the human side of The Creator‘s war. Yet, being filmgoers, we’re also accustomed to stories which cast humans as the villain in battles against “the other,” the most obvious parallel being the similarly lower-budget science fiction film District 9. The narrative of The Creator starts at the AI side of this conflict at a disadvantage, further complicated by real life developments which threaten to replace real artists, writers, and even filmmakers with algorithmic bots which steal the work from real creators. Yet, the film so wants us to sympathize with the creation that it wraps its threat within the skin of a human child. In this way, Edwards manipulates our natural instinct to protect the young of our species as well as our societal concepts of innocence and victimhood, to make us empathize with a force which poses an existential threat to our “side.” At the start we, and Joshua himself, are given little reason to care for the target of his operation other than it wearing a costume we are hardwired in our generic programming to protect. These lines are of course further blurred over the course of the narrative (which I’ll avoid to not spoil the film) with ideas such as equality, freedom, and slavery, all offered as possible allegories or justifications, but the film never settles on nor develops any of its particular themes enough for one to emerge as the point. It’s a sort of mishmash of possible metaphors which leaves the viewer scrambling to find their own.
Maybe it’s a film about the faults of American imperialism, although we’ve had dozens of those in just the last few years. Maybe it’s about accepting another species, which is already accepted and even celebrated by a majority of people within the film. Maybe it’s about valuing all life equally, except that the AI characters can download their consciousness into a new body thus making their lives infinite and therefore less valuable. Maybe it’s a statement on parenting and the idea of a creation, be it a child or a robot, replacing the creator. Maybe it’s a forty years out of date parallel to the Vietnam War. Or maybe it’s Edwards following in the footsteps of Radiohead and disappearing completely into technology. Yet, in my own examination, I couldn’t help wondering how much of human civilization would improve if not for the fact that we are, as a species, undeniably lazy and unimaginably vain. Our entire social development is testimony.
We’re venturing away from the film itself here and into what I’ll admit is a gross over-simplification, but hopefully you’ll go with me as these thoughts were inspired by the film and serve evidence of its importance as more than entertainment:
Hierarchal structures are designed because people want someone else to do our work for us. (Like I said, this is a gross over-simplification, just go with it.) We don’t want to grow our own food, so we pay someone else to do it. We don’t want to make our own clothes, so we pay someone else to do it. We don’t want to work in factories, drive, cook, or make our own coffee. We don’t want to do the hardest, most repetitive, most boring, or most dangerous jobs, so we pay someone else to do them, someone who we inevitably view as lesser than us because we are the ones paying for their service. Their lives and livelihoods are in service to us.
Once our society became advanced enough, we created machines to do these jobs for us, thus moving the standard of things we don’t want to do higher until where now we’re making machines that do the things we’re too lazy to even try to do. We want to make a picture but we’re too lazy to draw so we make an AI program to steal other people’s art. We want to publish a book but we’re too lazy to write so we make a chatbot to steal other people’s words. We want to get a good grade but we’re too lazy to do our homework so we make a program to use other people’s research. We want to go somewhere but we’re too lazy to drive so we make a car that drives for us. All of which diminishes those whose efforts make our laziness possible. In the same way that the average consumer thinks nothing of the laborer who picks their lettuce, that consumer may soon think nothing of the artist whose work was stolen for their online profile picture. Meanwhile, in our pursuit of cheaper and faster products, we are creating and exploiting the technology that will, inevitably, replace us.
At the same time, in our vanity, we can’t help making this creation in our own image. As though ours is the most efficient form imaginable. Or, more accurately, as though we believe ourselves so important that we have to project ourselves onto everything. We assign our dogs – a species we have genetically altered into our own service – human traits and clothes and want them to behave in ways we find acceptable. We paint cartoon eyes on inanimate objects to make them seem more relatable. We give machines cute little human names to make them seem friendly, more individualized. We will, inevitably, wrap our robots in human costumes for them seem more presentable, more appealing, more “real,” thus making ourselves victims of our own empathy simply because we are too damn lazy and too damn vain to do anything for ourselves.
The Creator, as with so much human verses machine fiction, shows us the extreme results of when human laziness and vanity combine to create an entire species dedicated to serving our needs. In casting the film’s ultimate weapon as a little girl (with a remarkably measured performance by Madeleine Yuna Voyles), Edwards is playing into our vanity, making what should be a simple operation into a test of morality as empathy takes hold because we want to see ourselves in everything. Joshua, played with a considerable depth by John David Washington, wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a computer monitor that threatened all of humanity. Yet he balks when that computer is in a form like his. In its own way, The Creator paraphrases the defining dilemma of our time: Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. The war in The Creator and every other human versus machine narrative could have been avoided if humans didn’t make the machines. But we did, and we will, because we are lazy and vain.
Getting back to the actual film…
While not an entirely unique piece of science fiction, and not without its own massive flaws, dragging portions, and plotholes, The Creator excels at using what is already there in the best ways possible. Its narrative, simple as it is, works on its own. Its effects, wonderful as they are, work in service of the real people locations. Its emotions, however heavyhanded, work because want to we want to be manipulated, we want to see ourselves in these characters. Its themes, obscure as they may be, work by triggering our need to make connections and dig for meaning. In fitting contrast to AI-assisted art that slaps together the most popular terms in the easiest and most slapdash way, mass producing films with hundred million dollar visuals and ten-buck stories, The Creator is a handwritten love letter to cinema. It’s a carefully planned, masterfully executed, and ambitiously delivered reminder that movies don’t need to be perfect to be worthwhile, don’t need to be unique to be groundbreaking, don’t need to be mind-numbing to be entertaining, don’t need to “say something” to be meaningful. What they need is to have everything in its right place.
Well, almost everything. Doesn’t seem the audience has quite figured out their part. That’s all right though, even Kid A sold one-third as many copies at release as OK Computer.